Last days of Rome

Driv­ing across Eu­rope will soon in­volve snooz­ing in a self-driv­ing limo with a half-eaten baguette in your lap. But for now it re­mains some­thing spe­cial. By Ben Miller


THE DRIVE BACK from Ca­hors, in south-west France, to Lin­colnshire is one of those jour­neys un­con­cerned with your method, your speed, your tac­tics or even your route (skirt well wide of Paris? Brave the Pé­riphérique? Un­screw the num­ber plates and set the cruise to 150mph? Jokes) – it’s a long day at the wheel, whichever way you cut it. And so 24 July started with a 6.30am alarm in deep­est ru­ral France and ended at 8.30pm that night with the Bent­ley’s in­stru­ments telling the story in a few curt dig­its: 11hrs 20mins, 715 miles, 63mph and 25.6mpg.

The re­ally im­pres­sive bit? That we then went out for din­ner, rather than crawl­ing into bed with eyes like sand­pa­per (and not just be­cause there was noth­ing ed­i­ble in the fridge). Just one rea­son why, when a week­end away for a friend’s 40th birth­day came up, I de­cided against book­ing a cou­ple of bud­get air­line tick­ets and booked the Euro­tun­nel in­stead (high ’n’ wide car­riage, nat­u­rally). No one re­mem­bers tak­ing flights; with any luck you wake up on land­ing. Great Euro­pean drives (and rides) make me­mories.

Rewind. Be­fore the drive back there was the drive down, nat­u­rally. In a world ob­sessed with stay­ing con­nected, the Bent­ley’s first win is to start to soothe your fren­zied mind be­fore you’ve even made it to Folke­stone. Sure there’s Blue­tooth con­nec­tiv­ity and CarPlay (not to men­tion full rearseat en­ter­tain­ment, com­plete with head­phones) but we choose in­stead to block in­com­ing calls, fire up the care­fully crafted playlist (power bal­lads mainly – don’t judge me) and set­tle in. Post rush hour miles pass ef­fort­lessly, first east to Cam­bridge then around the M25 and on to the south coast, Kent bask­ing in an­other fine day from sum­mer 2018’s gen­er­ous quota. The sump­tu­ous seats do their thing and the Bentayga’s air ride iso­lates the road be­neath you just as its in­su­la­tion and glaz­ing iso­late the roar of dis­placed at­mos­phere around you. Up ahead the big V8 feels in­domitable, ef­fort­less and re­as­sur­ingly over-en­dowed. In a world in­creas­ingly un­will­ing to let you do so, we just let our thoughts wan­der.

The route down (in stark con­trast to the one-hit charge back) splits into three legs: Stam­ford to Amiens, Amiens to the sleepy town of La Souter­raine, and a fi­nal two-hour cruise to Ca­hors for the birth­day week­end.

Un­der the Chan­nel, into France and the Bent­ley gets to work on cov­er­ing the vast au­toroute net­work. Big­ger is bet­ter: it’s one of na­ture’s in­con­tro­vert­ible rules, like sur­vival of the fittest and run­ning wa­ter’s fond­ness for the easy way out. Just as light air­craft worry about bird strikes, storms and tur­bu­lence where an A380 doesn’t, so there’s a stress-salv­ing peace of mind to head­ing south not in an in­con­se­quen­tial tin box but in 2.5 tonnes of crafted SUV that smells like a sad­dler’s tool­kit

and feels at least as ex­pen­sive as an Air­bus.

The Bent­ley’s air-con­di­tion­ing, with its un­fea­si­bly sat­is­fy­ing or­gan-stop vent con­trols, takes the sting out of the Eu­rope-wide heat­wave as the adap­tive cruise re­moves any real el­e­ment of ef­fort from the act of driv­ing. The cruise con­trol stalk is con­spic­u­ously Audi but hav­ing got­ten ac­cus­tomed to it in my pre­vi­ous long-term test car, the RS5, I’m a fan. Set your speed with the but­ton on the end of the stalk (set low and to the left of the steer­ing wheel), ad­just speed up and down by – you guessed it – prod­ding the stalk up and down, and set the fe­roc­ity of your tail­gat­ing us­ing the tog­gle, from ‘dig­ni­fied and dis­tant’ max­i­mum to the ‘Move. Now!’ min­i­mum. Mostly we cruise in Com­fort but now and again there’s cause to stir my idle left arm, twirl the Bent­ley’s beau­ti­fully tac­tile drive mode ro­tary counter-clock­wise for Sport, with its iron-will de­ter­mi­na­tion to stay level in cor­ners and un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm for sav­aging any road wide enough to let you ex­ploit the epic pow­er­train. The fuel gauge nee­dle freefalls.

You can of course try to chase half-de­cent fuel econ­omy in a V8 petrol Bent­ley (the short-lived Bentayga Diesel, though ex­cel­lent, is no more) but the temp­ta­tion after each toll booth is too great, par­tic­u­larly when we lose so much time feed­ing in tick­ets across the yawn­ing foot-wide chasm I’ve left to the kerb, fear­ful of scrap­ing the car’s gloss back 22s. Win­dow back up, pedal to the car­pet and the Bent­ley’s prow rises to the gut­tural roar of the twin-turbo eight.

At Amiens the Bentayga takes its first drink: 117 eu­ros in ex­change for the day’s 365 miles. Ouch. Still, who cares? I’m un­likely to make a habit of sum­mer hol­i­day­ing in Bent­leys, and we’re still run­ning a smaller tab than fly­ing.

After a night at the gor­geous La Cour 26 (cham­ – handy if you’re ever blast­ing away from, or back to, Calais and need a nice room for the night) we put in the stint south to La Souter­raine, the Bent­ley’s sheer road pres­ence mov­ing hol­i­day­ing Bri­tish traf­fic aside with dis­dain. By now the ob­scenely pow­er­ful au­dio sys­tem has proved pretty spe­cial.4

Hardly an au­dio­phile, I’ve al­ways strug­gled to un­der­stand how any­one could jus­tify spend­ing £6615 on a stereo. I still can’t, but I can now at least ap­pre­ci­ate that do­ing so is not a waste of money. Few that I’ve used ac­tu­ally get clearer and more de­tailed the louder you go – the Naim does, just as the V8 sounds best when you’re whip­ping it like a two-stroke. Again we luck out on ac­com­mo­da­tion. After a very en­joy­able 20 min­utes of de­serted back road off the A20 mo­tor­way, we roll into sleepy, sun-drenched La Souter­raine mid-af­ter­noon. Park up, ad­mire the Bent­ley’s bluff and bug-smeared nose (the head­lights might be too small for the car but their de­tail­ing is ex­quis­ite) and go in search of a cool beer in the shade. On my phone, up­dates on var­i­ous un­fold­ing Ryan Air night­mares among other at­ten­dees light up What­sApp. The poor, wretched crea­tures.

Mai­son No.9 (maison­nu­meroneuf. com/en) is a short walk from the square and a glo­ri­ous old sprawl of a place lov­ingly re­stored and run by an English cou­ple, Dun­can and Lisa, who swapped the stress of run­ning pubs in the UK for the sanc­tu­ary (but equally hard work) of this quiet cor­ner of France.

The Bentayga squeezes through the gates to take up res­i­dence next to sev­eral vast laven­der bushes in the shady walled gar­den, look­ing en­tirely in its el­e­ment. Dun­can and Lisa have had Bent­leys stay be­fore, clas­sics with chas­sis like trucks and en­gines like an aero­plane’s, not to men­tion a cou­ple of French-reg­is­tered, open-wheel Bu­gat­tis that ar­rive each Septem­ber on their way to the clas­sic street races at An­goulême (cir­cuit­desrem­ I imag­ine their own­ers now, in these hours be­fore din­ner, check­ing oil lev­els and ef­fect­ing car­bu­ret­tor ad­just­ments for the pre­vail­ing con­di­tions. With the Bentayga there’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do but look at it, so we do, Dun­can adamant he’d rather drive his world-weary Freelander 1 than be seen in some­thing so os­ten­ta­tious. Dun­can, my man, that’s how ev­ery­one feels un­til they try it…

And in that way that it does when you’re on hol­i­day, the clock then goes onto fast-for­ward, time pass­ing in a blur of late nights, late starts and fiercely hot days only a pool and noth­ing to do can see you through.

The Bent­ley just gets on and does its thing, feel­ing spe­cial ev­ery sin­gle time you climb into it and mak­ing ev­ery trip easy, whether we’re pop­ping into town for yet more fresh bread, haul­ing five to the lo­cal go-kart track or blat­ting up the nearby hill­climb of a back­road for no other rea­son than it’s de­serted and fiendishly tech­ni­cal. (And be­cause it’s high time the un­of­fi­cial course record, ap­par­ently set in a Tal­bot Sun­beam Lo­tus, was shat­tered.)

The next day we get up early and sim­ply drive home. And make more happy me­mories in 11 hours 20 min­utes and 715 miles than you’d hope to find a life­time of Ryan Air flights.

What could be iner? A Conti GT you say? Well pos­si­bly, given there were only two of us

‘Such cute lit­tle streets! So quaintly nar­row! Oh God we’re stuck…’

CarPlay the easy way to up­date the Bentayga’s al­ready dated screengraph­ics

What price tak­ing the sting out of very earlystarts?

Looks as big as the house. Isn’t; quite

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